Opinion: Mumbai's night of terror cries out for a different approach to global terrorism

November 28, 2008 - Edmonton-Much was made during the U.S. presidential election campaign of Joe Biden's supposed gaff when he said that Barack Obama will be tested early in his term as president. At

1 December 2008

November 28, 2008 - Edmonton-Much was made during the U.S. presidential election campaign of Joe Biden's supposed gaff when he said that Barack Obama will be tested early in his term as president. At the time, Biden speculated that the test might come in the form of an "international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

Obama still has 55 days before he becomes president, but he may already be finding out the extent to which Biden's words were prophetic. It seems that some terrorists want to make a statement during this period of transition in American politics.

Wednesday night, November 26, Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), India's largest and most cosmopolitan city, experienced a well co-ordinated terrorist attack that should confirm to Obama that President Bush's "war on terror" is far from being won, and may be unwinnable.

Heavily armed gunmen, taking advantage of security weaknesses of this busy financial capital of India, used the sea routes into Mumbai from Karachi, Pakistan, to infiltrate luxury hotels like the Taj Mahal and Hotel Oberoi, upscale restaurants like Café Leopold, the crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station (it is estimated that 6 million people ride the commuter trains through Mumbai each day), and a Jewish community hall. These terrorists pulled off a "9/11-style" surgical attack on the financial capital of India, injuring more than 320 and killing about 160 people, including Mumbai's anti-terror chief Hemant Karkare, and injuring hundreds more.

Clearly these attacks were aimed primarily at Western visitors, particularly British and American tourists and diplomats. And the attacks were carried out on the eve of the American thanksgiving holiday and just prior to major cricket tournament to bring heightened attention to the terror strike.

The intelligence community did not see this coming. And there is much speculation about what group could have pulled this off. While a little-known group, Deccan Mujahadeen, has sent out email messages implying that it was involved, the conventional wisdom is that the sophistication and co-ordination of the attacks, as well as the specific targeting of Westerners, make it more likely that an established terrorist group, with help from outside India, was responsible.

There is already a list of suspects.

India has long suffered violence from extremist attacks based on separatist and secessionist movements, as well as ideological disagreements. One group that could have carried out this attack is the Naxalites, a left-wing extremist group that takes its name from Naxalbari, a village in the state of West Bengal.

This group first staged an uprising in 1967 but was almost wiped out by the Indian government in the 1970s. It somehow managed to survive but split into smaller factions, including the People's War Group and Maoist Communist Center. In 2004, those two groups formed the Maoist Communist Party of India with the stated goal of helping the landless poor, tribal people and lower castes.

Naxalite extremists have been recruiting foot soldiers from impoverished populations in India and have carried out violent activity in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa. In April 2006, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, called the threat from Naxalite extremists the "biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country." But it is unlikely that the Naxalites would have been able to carry out such a brazen and co-ordinated attack as the one in Mumbai.

Another potential suspect is Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, the "Army of the Pure." This extremist group has been very active in Kashmir and is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. It is suspected of playing the central role in several terrorist attacks on Indian soil since 9/11.

The possibility that Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved in the Mumbai attacks is relatively high. This is a group that, during the 1990s, received instruction and funding from Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, in exchange for its pledge to target Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir and to train Muslim extremists on Indian soil.

Immediately after 9/11, when the U.S. named LeT a terrorist group, it went underground, split up into several branches and begun to use different names. It also stopped making public claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks. However, we now know that the LeT was suspected of involvement in the December 2001 attack on New Delhi's Parliament, the 2006 Mumbai train bombings and the February 2007 blast of a train running between India and Pakistan. This group could have carried out the Mumbai attacks.

But chances are that the Indian Mujahadeen group was most likely the culprit. This groups claimed responsibility for a series of blasts in the state of Uttar Pradesh in November 2007 and in New Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmedabad in 2008. Since May of this year, this militant Muslim group has taken credit for a string of terrorist bombings blasts that killed more than 130 people. The most recent one occurred in September, when a series of explosions struck a park and crowded shopping areas in New Delhi, killing 21 people and wounding about 100.

The IM is an outcrop of a student-based extremist group founded in 1977 by Mohammad Siddiqi, who incidentally is now a journalism and public relations professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill. Siddiqi claims that the group he founded aimed to liberate Indians from the materialistic influences of the West and that its current incarnation is nothing like the one he founded.

The IM is the type of organization that would target the financial centre of India as well as those responsible for the materialistic decadence associated with Bollywood and Mumbai. It is also upset with the Indian government for not paying sufficient attention to the Muslim minority in that country.

The fact that the IM has a relationship with the LeT, as well as some links to Al Qaeda, makes it the most likely group to have the capacity to carry out this type of an attack.

Also, it must be remembered that last May, the Indian Mujahideen made specific threats to attack tourist sites in India unless the government stopped supporting the United States in the international arena.

Obama will come to office confronted not only by a deteriorating global economic situation but also by a threat of terrorism that has expanded beyond the Middle East to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian sub-continent. Both problems were exacerbated by failed Bush policies.

Let's hope that Obama takes a different approach than Bush to the latter problem. Clearly Bush's "war on terror" isn't working. The global terror network seems to be expanding rather than shrinking. Al Qaeda may not be as potent as it was in 2001, but it is influencing other extremist groups like the LeT and the IM.

Once Obama takes office in January, he should pressure the Indian government to address some of the underlying reasons why extremist groups have taken hold in that country. India is a segmented democratic state of one billion people, with a predominant Hindu population and a number of ethnic and religious minority groups that, in some cases, face social and economic marginalization. Unless the issue of poverty and marginalization is addressed among these minority groups we are bound to see more incidents like the one in Mumbai.

We know for example that Malaysia's economic prosperity has been, in part, responsible for keeping Islamic fundamentalists at bay. Malaysia is one of the few Muslim countries where a party promoting an assertive version of political Islam has been beaten back at the polls. The sustained economic growth in that country seems to have had something to do with that.

Obama needs to drop the Bush strategy and rhetoric associated with the "war on terror" and instead launch a global attack on the root causes of such violence: hopelessness, despair, economic marginalization, discrimination and unresolved long-term grievances.

W. Andy Knight is professor of international relations and director of the Peace and Post Conflict Studies program at the University of Alberta. He also serves as a governor of Canada's International Development Research Centre.

W. Andy Knight is a professor in the University of Alberta Department of Political Science, the executive director of the new Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, which is located at the Ralph Bunche Institute of the Graduate Centre, City University in New York, and director of a new Peace and Post Conflict Studies Certificate Programme.

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